Lesley McCollum is a graduate student in Neuroscience at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. You can follow her on Twitter @lesleyamccollum.
"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham | www.phdcomics.com
We’re now halfway through January, meaning New Year’s resolutions are in full swing. If yours has already fallen flat, you’re not alone—fewer than two-thirds of people make it through the first month, and only 8% end up achieving their resolutions. Ouch. It’s likely that I’m not the only grad student this year to make a goal that relates to writing—whether it’s to write a grant proposal, to get published, or to finish your dissertation. If you’re already off to a good start, great! But if you don’t even know where to start, it can be tough to achieve your goal. To be one of those successful 8% requires smart planning.
SMART is an acronym standing for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. It’s common in project management and is highly relevant to writing projects as well. Dr. Jennifer Greer, a leading academic writing instructor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, introduced me to SMART writing plans. She likens academic writing to a design-and-construction job, rather than a task of spontaneous self-expression. “You wouldn’t invest time and money on a new house if the builder had no model, sketch, or blueprint,” says Greer. So why “would you spend months of professional time developing an article for publication without a SMART plan?” Creating a writing plan doesn’t take a lot of time upfront, but saves a lot of time in revising and rewriting.
SMART writing plans are:
Specific: It’s risky to attempt an open-ended academic writing project. It brings to mind visions of trying to drink from a fire hose—and who has time for a never-ending writing project? Create a writing plan with a focus and a limit. Set the length by author’s guidelines and specifications for proposals and journal articles. If your project doesn’t have required word/page limits, base your plan on an analysis of a good writing model. Detail the maximum page limit further by dividing it into sections to determine an approximate word or page length for each. For example, a 10-page scientific research article could be divided into: Introduction (2 pages), Methods (2 pages), Results (3 pages), and Discussion (3 pages). With the structure of the paper built, consider the content. I have a weakness of getting caught on literature trails when writing background sections and discussions. This confuses readers and distracts from the paper’s focus. Your writing should tell a cohesive story. Outline the topic of each paragraph with bullet points to direct this focus before you even start writing. With a specific plan, each time you sit down to write you will already know the content and length for each section of the paper.
Measurable: Successful writing plans allow you to track your progress. Prepare for each stage of the writing process, and make each step a separate objective. Then set daily, weekly, and monthly goals based on these objectives. For example, your plan could include: write 2 paragraphs (daily), finish methods section (this week), and complete preliminary research (next month). Incorporating smaller objectives into your plan will break up a large project and help you to monitor your progress. To meet your larger goal, it is important to meet these smaller goals.
Achievable: I don’t think we need to revisit those stats on failed New Year’s resolutions. My first SMART writing plan was impossibly ambitious—I had deadlines to write up my results before I had even finished the experiments. As I revised my plan, I considered how my experiments would progress each month, and how much time I could realistically dedicate to writing each day. I also took into account how other activities would impact my goals for the month, like coursework or travel to a scientific meeting. My revised goals still challenge me and require me to write regularly, but being able to meet my deadlines has a huge impact on keeping me going.
Relevant: Your plan should be relevant to the purpose, audience, and specifications of your writing project. Are you writing for a general audience, or will your article be read mostly by experts? The content and language of each paragraph should be appropriate for the reader. If your journal requires a combined Results and Discussion section, adapt your plan to reflect that. If you are in the humanities, your plan may instead need to include a theoretical apparatus followed by sections for your argument. Construct these specific elements of your plan to fit your writing project.
Time-bound: Pick a date. Whether it’s a week before your application deadline, or a day you choose based on your achievable goals, have a date to aim for. Starting with the end of the project in mind, and being able to picture crossing the finish line, works wonders for motivation.
Using the SMART criteria provides focus and direction rather than a long list of things to “work on.” The SMART outline is not a miscellaneous “to do” list, Greer emphasizes. “It’s a strategic outline based on a total maximum word length, a clear structure based on the type of paper, word lengths per section, and a series of bullet points that represent the topics of each future paragraph.” Check out examples of SMART writing plans and create your own using a template Dr. Greer makes available to the public on her class wiki.
Having a writing plan and schedule may sound like a good way to stifle the creative process. But a study found that academics who adhere to a writing schedule produce 3 pages for every 1 page that the spontaneous writers produce. And if you think you need to wait for that burst of inspiration, refer to Erin’s post on reasons for procrastination.
If you’ve made a resolution to meet a writing goal this year, start by creating a plan. It doesn’t need to be written in stone. The deadlines shouldn’t be considered a source for stress or anxiety, but as a critical piece of information needed to achieve your goal. Adjust and update your plan as your research progresses. Review it with your advisor to make sure you’re on the same page. Then share it with a friend, mentor, or committee member to help keep you accountable.
Have you found useful strategies for creating and sticking to a writing plan? Please share them in the comments!